From the wordless image of a black bird out front to the cozy circular booths in the back, the new Ravens Club on Main conjures the vibe of a speakeasy from a century gone by–though these days in Michigan, the only smokiness comes from bluesy jazz. The smart mood works without oversell–there’s no machine gun under Plexiglas, just an evocative antique decor, spit and shine on the old Full Moon’s massive oak bar, and unusual versions of classic cocktails. (Corktown Honey Bee with rum, thyme, and lemon, anyone?) There’s even a rotating featured punch on the drink list. I was more interested in the flights of wine–generous pours of three of your choice for eight bucks total, so you can have sparkly with your shellfish, red with your bread, and white with an entree.
Although historically inspired, the “heirloom cuisine” bends enough to feature what’s good locally, like nutty Selma Cafe granola in the fruit cobbler, and pretty plates of artisanal Michigan cheese. In these blessed harvesting months, local also means fruits and vegetables in their prime. Particularly pleasing were tiny pattypan squashes in the spicy West Indian vegetable stew and crisp and scarlet Goetz farm tomatoes that make you want to swear off supermarket softballs and wait till next year’s real thing comes around again.
The first food to come will likely be a plate of breadsticks, with huge discs of paper-thin exotic radishes and spicy bittersweet-orange Cafe de Paris herbed butter, which has so many mix-ins it’s barely buttery. I liked it, but a little bit is plenty. The house-doctored smoky-sweet catsup and the aioli dip that come with cones of crispy fries were more addictive. Appetizers and small plates are a strong suit, with surprises like peppery Creole low-country shrimp and grits with okra and ricotta. This irresistible porridge for grownups is $10, a good value for a dinner two could share. You should each order your own house salad, though, because you won’t want to share the varied fresh dark greens sprinkled with toasted sunflower seeds and crispy little yam straws.
Lemony-bacony oysters casino were spot-on, as was a long, slim platter of salad nicoise, except perhaps for the overly salty beet-cured salmon. On the grilled flatbread, chive oil melds swimmingly with mozzarella hummocks and red and green pepper garlands. The short roster of sandwiches shows a bit more creativity than you often see: chicken salad, for instance, has a Russian-esque dressing spicy from capers.
Charcuterie platters show up all over town lately, but chef Dan Vernia’s stands out for its sensory spectrum. Mixed-meat terrine is fine but no equal to light-as-air chicken liver mousse (creamier than the herbed butter). Pickled shallots, spiced almonds, figs, and berries round out the array of colorful textures, from soft to crunchy and toasty brown. About the only thing I tried that teetered precariously on the precipice of bland was a white bean hummus, which apparently traded in the dip’s trademark sesame and lemon flavors for cashews, miso, and mint. But I’m only quoting the menu here; I tasted mainly mildly sour, not unpleasant, anti-garlickiness. (I wouldn’t say there’s an epidemic of odd ingredients instead of what you expect here, but it is something to watch out for.)
Among entrees, fork-tender braised short ribs with a sauce of shiitake mushrooms and stout could do no wrong. Cabbage rolls–four neat and meaty ones–brimmed with pork belly and lamb sausage and were successfully sauced with a mildly spicy red arrabiata. Jade green basil-anchovy mousse melted luxuriously into mild walleye, cooked in parchment paper to seal in the flavors.
For dessert, a little side pile of gummy diced sugar beets were expendable in the basically fine tart cherry bourbon cake. Other desserts were beautiful and inspired–citrus cheesecake with killer strawberry wine sauce, for instance, and a chocolate sampler that included amazing preserved-ginger fudge unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. Since they change, I won’t dwell on them except to say you could get very, very lucky.
There’s much to admire about the artful presentations and impressive aspirations of the new Ravens Club, but I came dangerously close to ending with a negative. Service wasn’t where it needed to be on initial visits in July, despite a lot of scurrying of all hands on deck. The waits were too long, with wine arriving to half-eaten entrees, and (gasp!) cream arriving too late to temper rich, dark, local Roos Roast. Everyone was apologetic about delays, as well as knowledgeable about the complex food. Still, I was starting to feel too familiar with the admittedly interesting art deco wallpaper as I scanned the room for our server.
The good news is that more staff has been added, and there are reasons to believe the joint is quickly catching up with its success. It should, because the food is good enough to linger over, and the space is lovely to contemplate, particularly at night, under the cerulean glow of what may be the largest lampshades in town. Check it out to see for yourself.
The Ravens Club 207 S. Main, (734) 214-0400
Open for dinner Tues.-Fri. 4-10 p.m., Sat. 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 5-9 p.m. (partial menu). Closed Mon.
Small plates $5-$15, salads $6-$16, entrees $9-$24, dessert $6-$8.